What is Pancreatic Cancer?

Cancer starts when cells in the body grow out of control and form lumps which are called tumors. They can either be benign (non-cancerous) or malignant (cancerous).

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The pancreas is a small organ shaped like a fish with a wide head. It lies behind the stomach and is about 6 inches long and less than 2 inches wide. It has 2 main parts, the exocrine and endocrine pancreas.  The former produces enzymes that help primarily in fat and protein digestion. While the endocrine pancreas produces insulin, which is the hormone responsible for controlling blood sugar levels.

The most common type of pancreatic cancer is adenocarcinoma of the pancreas, which starts in the exocrine cells (makes up most of the pancreas that form the exocrine glands and ducts). However, tumors may also develop at the neuroendocrine cells in the form of neuroendocrine tumors.

Types of Pancreatic Cancer

Pancreatic Adenocarcinoma

Pancreatic adenocarcinoma makes up about 95% of all diagnosed cases of pancreatic cancer. Itusually starts at the ducts of the pancreas. Sometimes, they may also develop from cells that produce pancreatic enzymes and are called acinar cell carcinomas. Some less common types of exocrine cancer may also include the following:

  • adenosquamous carcinomas
  • squamous cell carcinomas
  • signet ring cell carcinomas
  • undifferentiated carcinomas
  • undifferentiated carcinomas with giant cells

Ampullary Cancer

This is also called cancer of the ampulla Vater which is where the bile duct comes together with the pancreatic duct and empties into the small intestines. Technically, ampullary cancers are not pancreatic cancers, but treatment for them is similar. These cancers often block the bile duct even when they are still small. This results in a buildup of bile which can lead to jaundice. These symptoms often lead to earlier discovery of the disease, which means there is a better prognosis.

Benign or Precancerous Growths in the Pancreas

Some growths in the pancreas may not be cancerous or will only become cancerous over time if left untreated. The latter are known as precancers. The advent of modern imaging technology has allowed for more of these to be detected at earlier rates. These benign or precancerous growths may be:

  • Serous cystic neoplasms (SCNs)
  • Mucinous cystic neoplasms (MCNs)
  • Intraductal papillary mucinous neoplasms (IPMNs)
  • Solid pseudopapillary neoplasms (SPNs)

SCNs are usually the least harmful. But doctors often recommend the removal of the other tumors immediately. This is because they have a chance to develop into full-blown pancreatic cancer if left unchecked.

Pancreatic Cancer Symptoms

Early pancreatic cancer does not often cause symptoms. They usually appear when the cancer is already large or has spread to other areas. The following symptoms listed below may indicate the presence of the disease. However, having one or two of them does not automatically mean that you have cancer. The best recourse is to see your doctor immediately if you begin to experience any of the following, especially if you have a family history of pancreatic cancer and chronic pancreatitis:

  • Jaundice
  • Dark urine
  • Light-colored or greasy stools
  • Itchy skin
  • Abdominal pain
  • Back pain
  • Unexplained weight loss and poor appetite
  • Liver and gallbladder enlargement
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Blood clots
  • Diabetes

Pancreatic Cancer Risk Factors

Screening is testing done despite the absence of symptoms. In more common and more easily diagnosed cancers like breast and prostate, there are standard screening protocols recommended by doctors for people of certain ages and risk groups. But for pancreatic cancer, there is no such thing. However, if you are 'high-risk', there are tests available for the earliest possible detection of pancreatic cancer. The following are important risk factors to consider when determining whether or not you should subject yourself to these tests:

Chronic Pancreatitis

This is long-term inflammation of the pancreas. It is often the case in people with heavy alcohol and drug use. But it may also be due to inherited gene changes or genetics. The latter accounts for up to 10% of all pancreatic cancers. If you have a family history of pancreatic cancer, ask your doctor for gene testing options or if it is feasible to undergo regular pancreatic cancer screening.

Lifestyle Risk Factors

Heavy alcohol use and smoking are strongly linked with developing pancreatic cancer. A direct link has not been found. Buta meta-analysis in 2016 showed that high liquor intake, especially when compounded with heavy smoking, was associated with an increased risk of pancreatic cancer. More simply, excessive alcohol consumption is one of the primary causes of pancreatitis, which is a condition that greatly increases the risk of pancreatic cancer.

While many experts deem the BMI as insufficient for a holistic analysis of overall health, people with a BMI of over 30 are 20% more likely to develop pancreatic cancer. It is also more common in people with diabetes, especially type 2 diabetes, and is linked to obesity.

Immutable Risk Factors

These are factors outside of your control. Age is a risk factor that increases as it goes up. Most cases of pancreatic cancer are found in people older than 45. The average age of diagnosis is 70 years, with more than two-thirds of cases being in people at least 65 years old.

Men are slightly more prone to pancreatic cancer. This is believed to be due to alcohol and smoking habits. African Americans also have higher rates of pancreatic cancer, with a 15.9 per 100,000 chance of developing the disease.

Genetics is also a factor in pancreatic cancer development. It was found that as much as 10% of all pancreatic cancers are hereditary. According to the American Cancer Society, the following inherited genetic syndromes may increase the risk of developing pancreatic cancer:

  • Hereditary breast and ovarian cancer syndrome, caused by mutations in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes
  • Hereditary breast cancer, caused by mutations in the PALB2 gene
  • Familial atypical multiple mole melanoma (FAMMM) syndromes, caused by mutations in the p16/CDKN2A gene and associated with skin and eye melanomas
  • Mutations in the PRSS1 gene usually cause familial pancreatitis
  • Lynch syndrome, also known as hereditary non-polyposis colorectal cancer (HNPCC), is most often caused by a defect in the MLH1 or MSH2 genes
  • Peutz-Jeghers syndrome is caused by defects in the STK11 gene. This syndrome is also linked with polyps in the digestive tract and several other cancers.

You need to make sure that your doctor is aware if you possess any of these risk factors. Especially chronic pancreatitis and a family history of any of these genetic syndromes. Tests are available for earlier detection of pancreatic cancer. The sooner you find out, the sooner you can take action and improve your chances of survival.

If you or a loved one have suffered from a misdiagnosis or delayed diagnosis for your pancreatic cancer or from negligence during your treatment that caused you more harm, contact us at 833-PORTER9, or e-mail us at info@porterlawteam.com to discuss the details of our experience representing other clients and the results we were able to obtain in the past for clients who are suffering as you are. In many ways, our results speak for themselves, and we will stand ready to help you and your family in your time of greatest need.

Last Updated on March 25, 2024 by Michael S. Porter
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